I was very sad this week to learn of the death of my first ever bus industry boss, Chris Day. Back in 1991 when I was looking for a school summer holiday job before going to uni, Chris was Commercial Manager of a local bus and coach company called Buffalo Travel, and he gave me my first break.
Prior to that Chris had been Traffic Manager of an Aylesbury-based bus company, Red Rover, which operated routes within that town and into the surrounding areas and he was very proud of his time there. During his tenure at Buffalo Chris set up a new small business based in Aylesbury, in partnership with a friend. The chosen name, Red Rose Travel, and red and yellow livery clearly harked back to the days of Red Rover.
Buffalo had started life in the 1970s as a more traditional coach operation, providing school and works contracts, tours, excursions and private hire under the auspices of proprietors Tim and Ursula Cecil. Deregulation in 1986 had provided the springboard for the sudden and dramatic expansion into local services and this had prompted Chris’s arrival.
Chris threw himself wholeheartedly into developing an extensive network of bus routes at Buffalo and the company’s network spanned the counties of Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, all operated from the one depot in Flitwick. Although most were tendered routes, many were Monday to Saturday hourly or two hourly services, thus creating quite an intensive network providing work for around twenty vehicles. This dwarfed the half dozen or so coaches still operating the traditional business.
The fleet was a very eccentric mixture of types, the company seemingly priding itself on owing at least one of every type ever made. This did not however apply to Bristols – Tim would not entertain these in the fleet. Tim did however have a strong liking for Volvos and that has rubbed off on me, remaining my first choice chassis to this day.
At the more modern end, we had two conventional Plaxton Pointer-bodied Dennis Darts for newly acquired route 311 between Watford and London Colney – at its nearest point 25 miles from the depot. My particular favourite was L133 HVS, an Alexander Strider bodied Volvo B10B bought new for route 89 between Hitchin and Henlow Camp. I remember driving it when brand new and being utterly seduced by the smoothness, power and engine note! Last year I rescued it from impending death at the back of Arriva's Luton depot, where they had robbed it of most important parts but were extremely helpful in enabling me to take it off their hands, and the vehicle is now parked in our own yard in Eastleigh as a future preservation project – if I ever get round to it!
Other favourites of mine were four Plaxton Derwent bodied Volvo B10Ms and three East Lancs EL2000 rebodied B10Ms, that scored nothing for looks, but were very enjoyable to drive. Also within the fleet we had Merc 811 minibuses, a few Iveco 49.10s, some weird and frankly dreadful Lex Maxeta Bedford minibuses, some almost equally dreadful Leyland Swifts, an AEC something-or-other, a few old Bedford coaches, several Volvo B58 coaches – most of which were to what would be called ‘dual purpose’ spec, coach bodies but fitted with a ticket machine and used almost exclusively on local services.
We also had some newer B10M coaches for coach work with Caetano Alpha and Algarve bodies, latterly a few Scania coaches, a few Fleetlines of various pedigrees for schools including a raft of ex-London DMS’s, Leyland Olympians, Dennis Dominators, a Dennis Javelin midicoach, an open-top Fleetline that would occasionally be sent out on school contracts, with an umbrella wedged above the driver’s head in the cab if it was raining……
Not bad variety for a fleet of around thirty!
To be fair to Chris he would tear his hair out at Tim’s scattergun approach to vehicle acquisition, and in particular his habit of buying cheap old coaches and spending so much doing them up that it often seemed cheaper to have bought a newer model in the first place. And to be fair to both of them, the best of the bus fleet was easily as good as anything else around at the time, and the company had made far greater strides than most other independents in establishing itself as a ‘proper’ bus company.
Much of this was down to Chris’s passion for customer service. Although the company itself seemed like a bit of a roller coaster ride sometimes, Chris was determined that no mileage should be lost unless completely unavoidable and as a result we ran a far more reliable service than many outsiders might have imagined. I always detected a certain air of superiority from our neighbouring big operators Luton & District and United Counties, which rather ignored the fact that we ran a much more reliable service than they did!
Indeed one of Chris’s stipulations, which I have carried with me to this day, is that we would always answer phone enquiries about any operators’ services, on the basis that if people felt they had received a helpful service from us – even if they were not able to use us on that occasion – they might come back to us in the future. And besides, he would argue, it was important for the image of public transport that we weren’t seen to pass the buck, if it was something we could help with. We would frequently field calls from disgruntled customers of the big operators unable to get through on their enquiry lines.
Chris was also quite clear in his expectation that our drivers should provide a helpful and friendly service at all times, and would despair if he became aware of any individual failing to come up to standard. Most drivers were very good but there was the occasional exception, and Chris was withering in his contempt for anyone not doing the job properly.
Chris’s failings included a complete lack of attention to detail. As a keen young commercial trainee, I was completely absorbed in the detail of fares, timetables, duty compilation, publicity and data analysis. This was the stuff of my dreams and I thrived on it. Our schedules were always efficient and well presented and we always had up-to-date publicity – I even designed a network map on an early equivalent of Microsoft Paint. I would spend hours on WordPerfect 5.1 tweaking our timetable designs to make them easy to read. You always had the sense with Chris that if there wasn’t someone like me there looking after the detail, it would either receive cursory attention or not get done at all. Sometimes I had the sense that this was a bit of a problem with the Red Rose operation.
Chris was also incapable of getting up early. His working day rarely started before 11, and often closer to 12, when one of my first duties of his day would be to drive to Tesco and get his lunch.
I remember one Saturday morning I was doing control – often tricky in the days before I had a PSV licence – and after a few drivers called in sick, I was left with no choice but to ring Chris at about 7am, to ask him to come in to drive a duty. It’s fair to say it was a phone call I was dreading, and to say he was unhappy would be an understatement, but of course the show must go on, so in he came for a 0900 start.
It turned out to be a momentous day. That afternoon I ventured over to Milton Keynes, where Chris was driving on the 98 route out to the Kingston Centre. I rode with him on his last trip, after which he would be returning dead to Flitwick, and in Central Milton Keynes we were approached by a lady who needed to get to one of the villages south east of the city. It was well off our route, but there were no other buses going there, so Chris insisted that we take her, so we went well out of our way to drop her off after leaving the Kingston terminus as Chris would not see her left stranded anywhere. On the way back to Flitwick Chris asked if I fancied learning to drive a bus, and my life was complete!
Indeed, I had three driving lessons with Chris before doing my formal training. First time out, we took a B10M Derwent on a round trip to Luton, and I was filled with pride when Chris asked me if I was sure I hadn’t driven a bus before. I have no idea whether he was sincere or not, but it boosted my confidence through the roof. Second trip out, I drove Leyland Olympian A698 EAU to Aylesbury and we drove round the various housing estates stopping at frequent apparently random intervals, so that Chris could dive into a block of flats, or down an alleyway, to drop off the wage packets for his Red Rose drivers. Third time out, we took Bedford coach GTM 155T – my first outing with a manual gearbox – to Hemel Hempstead, had a McDonalds then drove back. No such thing as a boring trip round the block!
Chris subsequently worked at Seamarks in Luton, although this proved to be an unhappy experience, and then left to concentrate full time on Red Rose. I did some early Red Rose timetables for him, and indeed did Motts Travel’s Fuel Duty Rebate claim one year, but never really got involved with his other activities. After I left Buffalo and moved on to Southern Vectis we lost touch, and only met up a couple of times. Needless to say, I regret this now!
The same was true of his private life – this was never really up for discussion, and was closely guarded. I knew that he was a Samaritan, but that was about it. There was always the sense that there were subjects that were best not spoken about, and I never pried.
As a mentor early in my career, I couldn’t have wished for better than Chris. He imbued me with the principles of good customer service, and running the mileage no matter what, that have helped earn Velvet such a good reputation today. If a customer had a complaint, he would leave no stone unturned to find a resolution that was acceptable to them. He was always enjoyable company and as a boss, I would have done anything for him.
If ever there was an unsung hero in my opinion it was Chris, and he is deserving of the highest tribute. May he rest in peace!